clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Ralph Northam promised black voters a voice. Will he listen now?

Democrats want to maintain the party’s image of racial inclusivity. Northam is threatening it.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks with reporters at a press conference on February 2, 2019 in Richmond, Virginia.
Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Ralph Northam’s victory in Virginia’s governor’s race was seen as an early challenge to the Trump administration’s demonization of minorities and tolerance of white nationalism. Now Northam’s commitment to challenging those values is being put to the test.

As pages surfaced from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook showing two people posing in blackface and a KKK costume, the fallout was swift among Democrats, who called for Northam, who is white, to step down.

“You can’t on one side of the coin have these virtues that are anti-racist, and have no accountability when it’s one of our own,” said Quentin James, founder and executive director of the Collective PAC, an organization to elect black candidates. “If he stays, it hurts the party at large — both our chances in Virginia, but also the national narrative of who Democrats are.”

So far Northam has resisted ceding his post. He first apologized for being in the photo in a statement Friday, only to backtrack a day later and say it wasn’t him. Then, during a weekend press conference, Northam recounted a seemingly separate incident in which he appeared in blackface for a Michael Jackson costume at a San Antonio dance contest.

Northam came into power in 2017 in an election that was largely seen as early backlash to President Donald Trump. Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric; his response to the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — which left one anti-racism activist dead — that “there is blame on both sides”; and his inflammation of a culture war around NFL players protesting police brutality, brought landslide wins for Democrats in the state.

Democrats have long touted a message of inclusivity and diversity. But it is very common for black communities to be represented by white Democrats. Systemic racism persists and flourishes in liberal strongholds. Democrats fear that if Northam stays, his presence will show that people of color and groups who mobilized alongside them to help Democrats win elections aren’t truly being heard.

The national pressure on Northam to resign is telling of a clear party message

Northam is losing allies by the day.

“We called Governor Northam to tell him that we no longer believe he can effectively serve as Governor of Virginia and that he must resign,” Virginia’s two Democratic Sens. Mike Warner and Tim Kaine said in a statement after Northam’s press appearance. “Governor Northam has served the people of the Commonwealth faithfully for many years, but the events of the past 24 hours have inflicted immense pain and irrevocably broken the trust Virginians must have in their leaders.”

The published photos sparked a flurry of condemnation and calls for his resignation from 2020 hopefuls to former Virginia Gov. Terry McAullife, a fellow Democrat. Northam’s subsequent press conference — where he was expected to simply apologize, and possibly resign — only tanked his credibility more.

“The press conference on Saturday was intended to try to stop the bleeding,” said Kyle Kondik, a veteran Virginia pollster and the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “Not only did it not stop the bleeding, it made the bleeding worse.”

Nationally, Democrats are coalescing around a clear message. But the fact Northam hasn’t made the decision to step down says something about his lack of accountability to black voters in Virginia. Black voters are a key contingent of Democrats’ base here; they make up about 20 percent of the state’s total electorate. In the 2017 governor’s race, 87 percent voted for Northam, according to exit polls.

“Northam owes his governorship to a significant degree to the overwhelming support of African American voters,” Kondik said.

That support came in large part because of a clear message of “racism versus anti-racism” between Northam and his Republican opponent Ed Gillespie. Groups like BlackPAC, a liberal super PAC dedicated to mobilizing black voters, highlighted voting rights issues and the racism elevated by Trump.

“Voters are concerned about the environment they are in,” Adrianne Shropshire, BlackPAC’s executive director, said. “Their top issues are racism, and hate crimes and attacks on immigrant youth. Black voters were looking for folks who could change the tide ... what we are seeing right now represent a betrayal of that trust.”

This is a relatively easy choice for Democrats — but one that carries serious weight

Even though the chorus of Democratic voices calling on Northam to resign is growing, it’s worth noting this is a relatively easy political call for Democrats.

“The Democratic base is a diverse base,” Shropshire said. “[Leaders] don’t have as much a choice but to denounce this.”

Northam, should he step down, would be succeeded by a Democrat: Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a young, black politician is second in line. But Fairfax, who was once seen as a star waiting in the wings has now had an accusation of sexual assault surface, which he vehemently denies. Third in line is Attorney General Mark Herring, a fellow Democrat.

Still, the political pressures that often pushes parties to ignore clear moral wrongdoings aren’t present here. Democrats don’t have to decide between sticking with a Democratic governor who has admitted to wearing blackface or electing a Republican.

“It’s one thing to stand on principle when you’re going to pay a political price for it, it’s another thing to stand on principle when there may not be any political costs,” Kondik said. “Would the reaction have been different if the lieutenant governor was a Republican? I don’t know the answer to that; I think it may have been a harder call.”

That Northam is dragging his feet on resigning is much more telling of the work Democrats still need to do to back up their message, James pointed out.

“People of color around him would be advising him to resign,” James told Vox. “We need more people of color in leadership and around our leaders.”

Those doing the mobilizing on the ground are already warning that the consequences could be serious if Northam refuses to leave office.

“The disconnect really is [Northam] understanding the magnitude and what the will of the people is,” Shropshire said. “There is an election in November and this is an election that could flip both chambers of the legislature. ... The governor has to be thinking about what it will mean for Democrats and candidates trying to flip seats if this continues and he continues to not have that moral authority.

“There is an impending real political potential crisis because of his presence. These are the kinds of things that make voters of color question their participation,” she said.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.